Britain announced on Tuesday that it will resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia a year after the court of appeal declared the UK government acted unlawfully by selling arms to the kingdom without first assessing whether they were involved in breaches of international humanitarian law.
Trade Secretary Liz Truss said in a written statement to parliament that an official government review found that airstrikes in Yemen that breached international humanitarian law were only “isolated incidents.”
“The government will now begin the process of clearing the backlog of licence applications for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners that has built up since 20 June last year,” she said.
Britain is one of Saudi Arabia’s top arms suppliers. Over the past five years, the UK’s top arms manufacturer, BAE Systems, sold Saudi Arabia £15 billion ($18.8 million) worth of arms.
The government review, sparked by the court of appeal’s decisions in June 2019, assessed examples of Saudi airstrikes using British equipment that could have breached international humanitarian law and killed civilians.
“This analysis has not revealed any such patterns, trends or systemic weaknesses,” Truss said. “The conclusion is that these are isolated incidents.”
Yemen has been beset by violence and chaos since 2014, when Houthi rebels overran much of the country, including the capital Sanaa.
The crisis escalated in 2015 when a Saudi-led military coalition launched a devastating air campaign aimed at rolling back Houthi territorial gains.
Tens of thousands of Yemenis, including civilians, are believed to have been killed in the conflict, which has led to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis as millions remain at risk of starvation.
- 'Disgraceful decision'
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “This is a disgraceful and morally bankrupt decision. The Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis, and the government itself admits that UK-made arms have played a central role on the bombing. We will be considering this new decision with our lawyers, and will be exploring all options available to challenge it.
“The evidence shows a clear pattern of heinous and appalling breaches of International humanitarian law by a coalition which has repeatedly targeted civilian gatherings such as weddings, funerals, and market places. The government claims that these are isolated incidents, but how many hundreds of isolated incidents would it take for the Government to stop supplying the weaponry?
“This exposes the rank hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy. Only yesterday the government was talking about the need to sanction human rights abusers, but now it has shown that it will do everything it can to continue arming and supporting one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world.”
On Monday, Britain announced its first independent sanctions regime. It had previously joined with UN and EU sanctions, but post-Brexit will now implement its own system.
Of the 49 initial individuals sanctioned, 20 were Saudis involved in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, was killed and dismembered by a group of Saudi operatives shortly after he entered the country's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018.
Riyadh offered various, conflicting narratives to explain his disappearance before acknowledging he was murdered in the diplomatic building, while seeking to shift blame for his death on a botched rendition operation carried out by rogue agents.
Khashoggi's body has never been found.
UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Agnes Callamard concluded in a report that Khashoggi's murder was a "deliberate, premeditated execution" and encouraged an investigation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Saudi officials, however, insisted that the crown prince was not involved in the murder.
Saudi Arabia announced at the end of last year that five people were sentenced to death for taking part in Khashoggi's murder.
By Karim El-Bar in London